Saturday, May 12, 2012

From the Archives... Faith Alive, Nigeria

There always came that inevitable moment in every single med school interview (and every post-bacc interview before that) when the interviewer would stop, head slightly tilted to the side, and either give a slight smile or settle his features into an even more serious expression and ask it.

"So tell me... why do you want to be a doctor?"

My answer had to include acknowledgment of the fact that I had never intended to come down this road at all; not consciously, at least.  I think, if I am really honest with myself, that doctoring was always somewhere back in there, lurking in the shadows, but it was never something that I felt I actively wanted to try to do, nor did I ever feel sure that I was even capable of pursuing it.  

I moved to Africa after I graduated from college, and ended up having a very unsatisfying experience there.  So, a couple of years later, after moving back to the States and working for a while, with a few weeks of vacation on my hands and a connection at a clinic in Nigeria, I decided to go back and try for a different angle this time.  

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This is the really strange thing.  I guess I would describe myself as a somewhat spiritual person but not an especially mystical one or someone prone to direct experiences of the divine.  So I can only describe what I had as a vision, I guess - I have never experienced anything like it before or since, and I have no other explanation for it.  
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I remember sitting in church at one point, at home in Colorado, probably while I was in high school or early college, listening to someone talk about some time he spent in Nigeria, and thinking, "Yep, no thanks!  I'm good.  No way would I ever want to go to Africa."  

Some time later, again sitting in church, I had my eyes closed for a prayer, and just had this image, this vision, as vivid as anything I've ever experienced, come over me.  It was an awful vision; it was like something you would see on CNN, some scene from a terrible famine in a dry, burning desert in some unnamed part of Africa.  People everywhere were starving and dying and suffering.

The image stayed with me for a short while, and then vanished.  And somehow, I knew then that I was meant to go.

[Note: none of this was ever a part of my med-school-interview answer.]

Anyway, years later, I decided that I wanted to go back to Africa.  I wanted to spend my month or so of vacation in Nigeria, in the city of Jos, volunteering at a clinic called Faith Alive.  My dad surprised me by announcing that he wanted to go, too.  So we packed up large boxes of medications and supplies to take with us and set off together on this adventure.  

I had some vague idea of wanting to get a degree in public health at the time, and I was curious to learn about how this clinic was run, what kinds of services they offered, what their work in the local community was like, how they impacted local health.

Nothing could have prepared me for the way this trip impacted me

I'm not talking about the extreme poverty, or the pervasive HIV, or the adorable, orphaned children pouring out from everywhere, although that was all unquestionably significant.  But I had seen all of that before.  What happened in Nigeria was that, as I wandered around the clinic, following the doctors and the nurses and the techs and the pharmacists and the patients and the counselors and the outreach workers, it slowly began to sink in that this... this was what I wanted to do.  Not just on a removed, public health level, but on an intimate, medical one.

This made me feel alive and fulfilled and purpose-driven.  This was my calling.  I wanted to be the doctor, in the room with the patient, with my hands holding theirs, able to diagnose and treat and improve health and give hope.  

That is sort of the short and honest version of how I ended up in medical school.  Yeah, I want to help people, and yeah, I love medicine and all that stuff.  But the real, deep-down reason is that I never had a choice.  I do actually, really believe that.  

I was talking to a friend about this tonight - neither of us have ever been the kind of people that can only see themselves doing one thing and one thing only.  We never will be those kinds of people.  We can each imagine many, many iterations of our lives in which we could be happy.  But that doesn't change the fact that we know we are where we are supposed to be.

It is so good to look at the faces in these pictures again; it's been some time.  It is good to be reminded of why and how I got here.  I need it now and then.


  1. Wow. What an awesome journey.

  2. Oh my goodness, Cathy! I ate up every single bite of this post. The words, the images, the all of it. What a beautiful tale you have weaved with both. The eyes, the faces, the moments. Love it. Thank you for sharing this piece of your dream with us. xo, Dr. M

  3. You are awesome. Thank you for writing this. I agree that some of us are meant for one thing and one thing only. Fortunately you discovered this early on. Thanks to people like you the world is a better place!


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